Saturday, August 3, 2013

If I was going to worship anybody ... it might just be David Foster Wallace

I recently discovered the genius of the late writer David Foster Wallace. After reading his gargantuan post-postmodern tragicomedy Infinite Jest*, I've developed an insatiable appetite for everything he wrote in his all too brief life. Wallace was blessed with an intellect that allowed him to riff with the written word like a master musician playing an instrument. Unfortunately, he was also plagued by lifelong depression that ultimately resulted in him taking his own life at the age of 46 in 2008.
A true polymath, Wallace completed two theses while completing his undergraduate degree at Amherst: his fine arts thesis became the best-selling novel The Broom of the System (I haven't read that one yet but it's sitting on the fireplace) while his philosophy thesis (which critiqued the metaphysical doctrine of fatalism) has also spawned a book of its ownWallace was then accepted into Harvard University's doctorate program in Philosophy and attended for a couple months before suffering a mental breakdown and deciding to concentrate his life's work on creative writing. That was a terrific vocational choice because this fellow could write as naturally as a gazelle can run.
I've devoured two of Wallace's essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster and have his third (Both Flesh and Not: Essays) on orderIf you read anything by him, this is where I suggest you start because I would count each essay (with topics ranging from the Illinois State Fair to a cruise ship vacation to a porn convention) as among the most well written and entertaining pieces I've ever read. He wrote the title essay for Consider the Lobster for Gourmet magazine and spends the majority of the article discussing the ethics of animal consumption!
I've also both read and listened to a remarkable commencement address that Wallace gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005 (published in mini-book form as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life). I commend a read or listen of the entire approximate 20 minute speech and here is a snippet:
"Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it Jesus Christ or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."
I found a recording of the address on a podcast by Tropical MBA - you can also find this episode as a free download on iTunes.
I've just finished D.T. Max's biography of Wallace, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story - it's a must read for anyone interested in understanding the mind that begat an incredible potpourri of exposition.
Read Wallace -anything he wrote or, better yet, everything he wrote. It's gold.
* Note - my favorite line from Infinite Jest is: ""Logical validity is not a guarantee of truth".


  1. Very insightful - written by someone who's spent a lot of time in self-analysing - something I can identify with. It can also lead to depression.

    The important 'truth', alluded to towards the end, is that relationships with other people, at all levels, is what really gives us meaning in our lives, and not obsession with the self.

    Regards, Paul.

  2. TAM,

    Judging from the part of Wallace's Kenyon College speech that you quoted, I have to say I'm not impressed. It's a litany of sweeping but totally unsubstantiated psychological claims plus an overly metaphorical use of the word "worship." They're empirical claims of the strongest possible kind: universal generalizations. They may have the "ring of truth," but should we believe them? That's why we have empirical science. Wallace is just pontificating like any other graduation speaker. I see nothing special about that.

    Consider his claim "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day." Maybe so, but tell us why we should believe you. To use Wallace's phrase, doesn't "being educated and understanding how to think" involve asking why we ought to believe a claim beyond the fact that it may sound deep to us?

    Producing "an incredible potpourri of exposition" may be a sign of manic energy. Camille Paglia has done it; is she a great thinker? Your favorite line from Infinite Jest is something any decent Intro to Philosophy course teaches students in the first week or two; for a philosophy major, it's banal. (Logical validity is no guarantee of truth, but it *is* a guarantee of truth-preservation.) I need much better evidence that Wallace is worth reading. Sorry to be so blunt, but I find no gold here.

  3. Steve, I hear Wallace as railing against a nihilism of the banal. In his Kenyon address, he describes the tedium of driving to the supermarket and waiting in line at the check-out counter. He then encourages the audience to imagine what it's like to be one of the other drivers or the check-out clerk. His message was certainly not earth shattering but it encouraged a rejection of self-centredness. Why? Well, Wallace's answer seems to be that the alternative is to be a zombie with an unquenchable thirst for whatever is the object of its "worship".

    For a taste of what Wallace could do with a single paragraph of fiction, I commend his Incarnations of Burned Children

    I think one of his best non-fiction essays was Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars Over Usage:

    Never any need to apologize to a hard-skinned civil litigator! Hope all is well with you and yours. Thanks for dropping by.

  4. Over the years there are more and more things we have stopped worshiping. Some people see that as a bad thing. I see it as a new beginning for mankind. I made a video about the end of worship as well.

  5. I feel the same way about Michael Chabon's writing as you do about Wallaces.

    In my opinion, Chabon is the superior writer of the two. But voice and style come down to preference.

    I recommend Chabon's collection of essays Maps and Legends: Reading & Writing Along the Borderlands.

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